Title I wins confidence, not so probation

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Both the school administration and its citizens task force on federal Title I should take a bow. Together, they brought new sense, equity and confidence to a program that has been a point of racially charged contention.

Hispanic leaders long have complained that the formula Chicago used to distribute some $125 million in Title I each year was stacked against them. By relying heavily on welfare data, the formula overlooked poor Hispanics who don’t qualify because of their immigrant status, advocates argued. In 1995, a group of principals from largely Hispanic schools petitioned the Reform Board to take up the issue. The administration then pulled together a task force of knowledgeable individuals, gave it time for serious work and accepted its recommendations even though they create some problems of their own.

Membership on the task force was tilted toward the Hispanic cause, but the group did not vote for special treatment. As a Catalyst computer analysis shows, Hispanic-majority schools gained, but only slightly and not beyond what their presence in the school system would warrant.

The biggest strike for equity came with a change that, in effect, took magnet schools off the recipient list. No disrespect intended, but magnet schools don’t need extra money as much as neighborhood schools do. The reason they got it was because Chicago’s old Title I formula considered the poverty level of school neighborhoods, as well as the poverty level of student bodies. As a result, Beasley Magnet, for example, whose free-lunch count is a relatively low 61 percent, got $467,000 because it sits across the street from Robert Taylor Homes.

As Hispanics had wanted, the new formula also gives greater weight to free-lunch counts and less to welfare counts. Combined with the new focus on student bodies, this change threw high schools for a loop. Fifty-three came up losers, with 20 losing out entirely. However, the problem rests more with the schools than with the formula: High school kids shy away from turning in the forms that qualify them for free and reduced-price lunches. Take Englewood High School, for example; its feeder schools have poverty rates in the 90-percent range while only 67 percent of its own students signed up for free lunch.

In another plus, the new formula continues the practice of giving proportionately more money to schools with higher concentrations of poor children. Some argue for a flat per-pupil amount, which is how state Chapter 1 is distributed. But that would shortchange high-poverty schools, which face much higher hurdles in educating students.

Elsewhere in this issue, the news is more troubling. In both Opinions and Chronicles, the lingering anger and confusion over the administration’s handling of probation and remediation come through loud and clear. A principal complains about a tardy assessment report, which he says is off base. A teacher says her school administration has turned hostile. In a common complaint, a parent says, “Instead of talking to folks, [CEO Paul] Vallas decided to hold a press conference. Kinks had not been worked out. In fact, it is still being developed as we speak.”

Despite the blunders, schools appear to be buckling down. But still there’s the risk that this forward movement will dissipate into cynicism and funny numbers as probation enters the consequences stage. As one student observes, “They’re dropping kids from school every day,” which serves to boost test scores. The experience of federal Title I suggests that probation and remediation would benefit from a task force of their own—to set standards that win the confidence of people working in the schools.

AWARD WINNER Every year, the International Reading Association gives just one print media award. This year, Elizabeth Duffrin won it for her comprehensive package of articles on Direct Instruction, which appeared in the September 1996 issue of Catalyst. Liz is in great company. Recent winners include writers for the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, Parents Magazine, Newsweek and Education Week. Our issue on Direct Instruction was made possible by a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation.